Obi-Wan remembered the last time he had smiled. Really smiled. Not the forced approximation of a smile intended to ease tension or offer hope in a bad situation, but the kind of spontaneous smile that arises from a well of joy and inner peace.
It had been a long time ago. During a different life.
He could close his eyes and picture the scene perfectly. Anakin had stepped off the transport onto the landing platform of the Senate, a party of powerful senators awaiting his arrival. Mace had been there. And of course, Palpatine. He and Anakin had just saved that sithspawn hide from the clutches of General Grievous. Or appeared to save. Given what had transpired it was doubtful the then-chancellor had ever been in any real danger.
Anakin had urged Obi-Wan to join him, to share in the accolades. Their easy banter was what had made Obi-Wan smile. What had he called Anakin? A poster-boy for the Jedi? What a sickening travesty. Obi-Wan forced his churning stomach to calmness.
He scowled at his reflection. One standard year on this forsaken planet appeared to have aged him five. Tatooine's harshness was going to weather and erode him into an old man in a very short time.
"Is that vanity sneaking into your thoughts, Ben Kenobi?" he asked his mirror image. "You should know better. Your Padawan showed you where that path leads."
Unfortunately, Anakin's egotism had been matched by his power. And the whole galaxy was paying the price of Obi-Wan's lack of foresight. Who would have expected Anakin to survive in such a state long enough to be saved?
Obi-Wan wheeled away from the mirror's reflected accusation and exited the refresher, muttering, "I should have struck the killing blow. Why didn't I? Why?" As usual, his mind veered from the question and the inner wall he'd built around those fatal moments remained intact. Perhaps it was better that way.
And perhaps the Empire was better than the Republic.
He crossed his arms and scanned his humble abode. When he'd first found it, the abandoned hut had been knee-deep in sand. Now it was weather-proof, and except for a small cooking unit, a woven rug and a chest bought in the marketplace in Anchorhead, empty. The austerity suited his mood. Someday, perhaps, when he felt more at peace with himself and his mission, he would get some simple furniture.
A buzz became faintly audible. Obi-Wan tilted his head to listen, then strode into the harsh light of another perfect Tatooine morning. By the Force, he despised blue skies. The only thing worse was a sky turned brown by a sandstorm.
Outside, the buzzing grew louder, carried to Obi-Wan on the east wind. He shaded his eyes and squinted into the rising second sun, lowering his hand when the sound grew hollow and picked up an echo. Whoever it was had turned into the canyon to the south. The droning suddenly cut off. Obi-Wan waited for it to start up again. He frowned at the south rockface behind the hut and whispered, "Move on. That's a Tusken Raider travel route. Start your engine. Now."
A wind gust scraped his cheeks. In the distance a bantha bellowed.
Obi-Wan locked the door and circled around the hut. He picked his way up the narrow, well-worn path. Pebbles skittered back down the trail. When he topped the rise, the desert wind blasted against him. He pulled up the hood on his cloak and held it in place with one hand as he crossed the barren plateau. When he reached the edge, he crouched behind a red boulder and peered into the canyon below.
Obi-Wan stepped around the boulder and dropped five meters to a narrow ledge, landing in a half crouch. He hadn't been noticed. He dropped another six meters to a scree-filled slope. The rock shards started sliding and he rode them down like a conveyor belt for two meters before lurching into motion, taking long strides diagonally down the slope, setting off micro-avalanches with each step. The noise reverberated like a tumbling waterfall.
Below, Beru Lars jerked away from the raised port engine hatch of her landspeeder. Her hand flew to the base of her neck. Obi-Wan pushed back his cloak's hood. Relief flooded Beru's expression.
"Oh, Ben," she said, "I'm so glad it's you. I was looking for your home, but I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I turned off the engine to think for a moment, to remember your directions, but then it wouldn't start again. I'm not very good with engines, though Owen keeps trying to teach me. I'm so relieved you're here." She cut off and blushed, as if only now aware she was babbling. She gave him a puzzled smile. "How did you find me?"
"The better question might be, why were you looking for me?" Obi-Wan said as he neared the dull silver landspeeder, most of its paint sandblasted off by the elements.
He halted near the driver controls and blinked at the pair of large blue eyes looking up at him from the passenger seat. He side-stepped away from the vehicle, shocked that she would bring the infant on such a perilous journey, more shocked that he hadn't sensed the boy. Too preoccupied with his own thoughts.
Giving the speeder wide berth, and earning a confused look from Beru in the process, Obi-Wan came up on Beru's right so that she blocked his view of the child. He pointed at the exposed engine. "What's wrong?"
"Oh Ben, I had another argument with Owen this morning. I had barely strapped Luke into his highchair when Owen started. He always begins the same way, saying, I love the boy, you know I do." Welling tears gave an iridescent glimmer to Beru's large eyes. "But then he said it's too dangerous to keep Luke. That every day he's in our house increasing the chances that he'll be discovered, that we'll be k-killed for hiding him ..." The tears spilled over.
Obi-Wan started to reach out. Heat and flames seemed to shimmer around him. I loved you. He withdrew his hand, cleared his throat and spoke gently. "I meant the engine, Beru. What's wrong with the engine?"
Beru took a halting breath and swiped at her cheeks. "I-I'm sorry. Owen has shown me which wire it is that keeps j-joggling loose. I can usually remember, but when I'm upset I forget ..."
Obi-Wan bent over the tangle of conduits, marveling that the engine ran at all. Several circuits looked to have been jury-rigged or by-passed. A few others showed charring, a sure sign they had short-circuited on more than one occasion. As he searched for something resembling a loose wire in the multi-colored snarl, he said, "You do realize this is a trail used by the Tuskens? I heard a bantha earlier and expect we're going to have visitors before I can get you moving."
Beru gasped. "I, I never thought ... I only knew I needed to see you."
"Why?" He touched a worn insulator and received a tiny shock. What was Owen thinking, letting Beru fly such a piece of ... bantha poodoo?
"B-because nothing ever gets you upset. You always seem so calm and I ... needed the reassurance I get when you're around."
"Appearances can be deceiving."
"You mean you do worry?"
"No. Worrying does nothing except give you grey hair, and I suspect, that despite my best efforts, I shall be quite grey before your young charge is grown." Obi-Wan straightened and peered west toward a bend in the canyon.
"But Luke is no trouble." She craned her neck to peer into the landspeeder. "I should have left him at home, I know, but Owen is working in the south field today. He's having problems with those new moisture-vaporators and --"
Obi-Wan touched Beru's wrist. "Can we continue this conversation later? Our company is about to arrive."
Beru's eyes rounded. She pressed her back against the speeder and whispered, "What are we going to do?"
"You're going to take cover. Do you have a blaster-rifle?"
She shook her head. "Our extra one isn't working. Owen has --"
Obi-Wan held up his hand. "Get in the speeder. It should protect you from any stray blasts if the Tuskens decide to fight."
"If? But they always ..." Her words trailed off as a shaggy bantha appeared at the west end of the canyon. She scrambled into the landspeeder.
Obi-Wan scanned the ridges but couldn't detect signs of movement. The Tuskens hadn't spotted them yet. No scouts meant a small band. Finally, something good about the situation. He took off his cloak and tossed it into the speeder.
Beru grabbed it, covered herself and the boy, and whispered, "We're going to play hide-and-seek. Doesn't that sound fun, Luke?"
A muffled giggle floated from under the brown mound. Obi-Wan blinked, then shook his head. He strode toward the approaching Tuskens
His fingers brushed along the length of his lightsaber. He couldn't use it unless absolutely necessary; it was too unique a weapon. Even Tuskens traded sometimes, and trading always seemed to involve stories, and a story about a sword of blue light could pique the interest of the wrong people. And that would indeed be cause for worry.
He knew the second they spotted him, an apparently unarmed man. An easy target. The leader raised his gaffi stick and shouted a Tusken war whoop. Not a good beginning.
Obi-Wan continued to walk toward them, an action that seemed to temporarily puzzle them, for none of the seven made a move.
Then the leader dismounted from the first bantha and stalked forward, his ragged cloak rippling in the gritty breeze. The other Tuskens watched and muttered amongst themselves. Were they a betting race? But who would be so foolish as to bet upon the man, almost a head shorter than their leader?
Now only three meters away, the Tusken whirled his gaffi stick in a circle above his head. Obi-Wan extended his hands, palms up. "I'm sure we get matters cleared up if you just --"
The Tusken swung the stick at Obi-Wan. He leapt back. "I know you'd rather bash my head in than talk, but it would be much better for you --"
Obi-Wan ducked under a second swing. The Tusken jabbed the stick like a spear. Obi-Wan snatched the bulbous end, launched his feet at the attacker's chest, and stuck with a Force-enhanced kick. The Tusken stumbled. As Obi-Wan landed, he jerked the gaffi stick from the Tusken's grasp.
The others still hadn't moved. Obi-Wan twirled the gaffi stick in a simple lightsaber kata as he took slow steps toward the surprised Tusken. The Jedi flipped into the air and landed another kick blow on the Tusken's chest, making him stagger back and almost fall. Obi-Wan gave his level best imitation of the Tusken war cry and shook the gaffi stick above his head. The leader backed up, one hand on his chest as if he were having difficulty breathing.
Obi-Wan threw the stick back to the Tusken and pointed west. "Go! Back the way you came." He picked up a stone and threw it at a mounted Tusken raising his blaster-rifle. The rock struck the Tusken's hand. He yelled his surprise and almost dropped the rifle.
The leader stood for a moment, glancing between his people and Obi-Wan, who picked up another stone and began tossing it lightly in the air. He bent his thoughts toward the Tusken. Leave. Protect your people. I don't want to hurt you.
The Tusken pivoted and jogged toward his bantha, yelling something as he went. The queue began to shift as the brown shaggy beasts were turned around. Obi-Wan doubted his projected thoughts had any bearing on what was happening, but he stared at the leader's back and thought, Thank you. When the Tusken was back on his lumbering mount, he glanced over his shoulder. Obi-Wan gave him a small bow.
Only when the Tusken Raiders were all around the bend did he turn back to the landspeeder. Beru sat in the passenger seat holding the child, his wispy blond hair looking almost white in the bright light. The child laughed and slapped the dash as the Jedi approached. Like his father. Obi-Wan averted his gaze.
No sign of laughter inhabited Beru's expression; she appeared rather bewildered. "How did you do that?"
Obi-Wan shrugged. "I simply ... spoke his language. Almost anyone can be reasonable if given the right incentive."
He returned to the engine hatch and focused on locating the loose wire. Beru was chattering -- a nervous release, no doubt -- and he paid it no heed. But each gurgle and giggle and childish, "Anbu, Anbu," cut him like a vibro-blade. He winced again and again. Deep inside something painful stirred. He clamped down on it.
Finally, he found the wire and re-attached it. He straightened and brushed his hands on his thighs. "There. It's a yellow wire."
Beru gave him a wide smile. Obi-Wan frowned. "You should be able to get back now."
Her smile fell away. "I had hoped to visit for a few minutes."
Obi-Wan ignored her comment. "You need to have Owen straighten out this wiring mess he's created. Otherwise you'll keep having problems. You need reliable transportation."
"But Owen has no time ..." Beru stroked the child's hair. "Especially with me not being much help any more.
Obi-Wan sighed. "You must get moving before those Tuskens rediscover their courage." She looked even more crest-fallen. He closed his eyes for a second. "Very well. Let's get the two of you indoors and rehydrated. I'll jot down a list of parts you can pick up in Anchorhead. Since you're out and about, you can get them today. I'll drop by your farm in a few days and do the repairs."
"We ... don't really have the credits to buy parts. It took everything we earned last season to buy those new moisture-vaporators."
Farmers. Everything goes into the farm and equipment, nothing into the family's needs. He said, "I have some emergency funds I can access."
"I can't let you do that, Ben."
"You can't stop me, Beru." He slid behind the controls and powered up the landspeeder. "Consider it ... the little one's first birthday gift."
"But ..." She closed her eyes and kissed the top of the boy's head. "Thank you, Ben. Luke would thank you, too, if he realized how generous a gift this is. I wish you had come to the celebration."
"In the eyes of the Empire, I'm a criminal. I cannot be seen to be too involved with you or him. Besides, it was a family affair." Obi-Wan turned the speeder, catching a glimpse of the boy's wide gaze fixed on him. Another jolt of pain careened from an unknown inner galaxy and seared across his awareness. He peered through the windscreen, careful to keep his eyes forward. Away from the child.
"You're family," Beru whispered.
"Only from your point of view, though I thank you for the kind opinion."
They were silent the rest of the short trip back down the canyon. The child, however, began jabbering and hitting the side of the speeder; it was all Obi-Wan could do to not snap at Beru to keep him quiet. At the intersection of five gorges, Obi-Wan took the first left and jammed down on the accelerator.
The child laughed and bounced on Beru's lap.
Too much like his father. Obi-Wan rubbed his mouth and bearded chin as he slowed the landspeeder on the incline to his hovel. He powered the transport down and sat for a moment, gathering calm from threads of the Force weaving through the canyon. Why was the prospect of hosting one kind woman and an infant more fearsome than facing a band of Tusken Raiders?
Obi-Wan grabbed his cloak, vaulted from the landspeeder and strode toward the door, leaving Beru to bring the child. After tapping in the entry code, he angled toward the kitchen unit the second the door hissed open. He busied himself getting out the only two glasses he owned and filling them with his favorite kava juice concoction, something he usually saved for a treat. But visitors should merit something special.
He set the glasses on a tray. Back still to the door, he picked up his data pad and made a quick list of wiring and parts the landspeeder needed. Undoubtedly an incomplete list, but it was a start.
From near the door, Beru said, "You're very good with mechanical things."
"Not as good ..." Obi-Wan laid the data pad on the tray and finished with a whisper, "... as Anakin was."
"I'm sorry. What did you say?"
He took a breath, picked up the tray and turned. Beru stood holding the child, backlit by the open door so that they seemed surrounded by a bright corona. Obi-Wan said, "It was nothing. Please close the door and ... make yourself comfortable. I'd offer you a chair, if I had one."
There was that beaming smile again. It came to her so effortlessly. As the door swished closed, she crossed to the rug and lowered herself to sit cross-legged. "Oh, Luke and I spend a lot of time on the floor, don't we Luke?" She sat the child beside her.
He waved chubby arms and said, "Anbu, Anbu."
"That's right," she said, "I'm Aunt Beru. And this is Uncle Ben."
"No!" Obi-Wan took a step forward and Beru raised her head with a start. He shrugged. "Just Ben. Please." He took a slow breath, walked toward her and sank to his knees. He set the tray between them and sat back on his heels in the Jedi position of patience, hands resting on his thighs. "The account access information is on the data pad. I'll get it back when I drop by. I hope the little one drinks from a glass. I have nothing else."
"He does, thank you." Beru slipped the pad into a pocket and helped the child take a drink, then sipped from the same tumbler.
"Both glasses are for you and the little one. I'm not thirsty."
"Oh, we're used to sharing." She ruffled the child's hair and he reached for the glass. She helped him hold it, though he didn't appear to desire her help.
Obi-Wan wanted to, but he couldn't look away. Such innocence. So helpless.
Agony ricocheted through his mind. He inhaled sharply and pressed a hand over his eyes.
"Are you okay, Ben?" Beru asked.
"Fine," he bit out. "A headache. From the suns, no doubt."
"Drink the other juice. You're probably dehydrated and don't realize it."
"Yes. Perhaps you're right." Obi-Wan snatched the glass. Drops of red splashed onto his sleeve. He stared at them for a few seconds, closed his eyes and downed the juice.
When he opened them, the child was standing and reaching toward him. Beru slid the tray to the side and set her glass on it. She held the child's little shoulders, and smiling, said, "You like Ben, don't you Luke? Go to Ben."
Obi-Wan shook his head, but Beru released the child, who swayed, then took a step forward. He's walking? Already? And another step. The child leaned into it and peddled his legs furiously to keep up with his body. He lurched toward Obi-Wan, saying "Bin, Bin," and grew wide-eyed as he started to fall.
Instinctively, Obi-Wan reached out and grabbed the child. He drew the small body forward, let himself fall sideways and back so they landed on the rug, the child on his chest.
And the child laughed. "Gen! Bin, gen!" He laid small hands on Obi-Wan's cheeks and repeated, "Gen!"
Obi-Wan lifted the child into the air, making him squirm and giggle. So fragile. So helpless. "Luke," the Jedi whispered, "I would do anything, give ... anything, to keep you safe. I just want you to be safe." He lowered the child onto his stomach. A youngling should never have to live in fear.
To die in fear.
Luke's face blurred. Pain hammered at the back of Obi-Wan's eyes. He set the child on the rug, rolled away from him and settled on his knees, back to Beru. He clutched his thighs with trembling hands. A tide was rising within. He tried to deny it, to dam it, anything ... anything to stop the hurt.
Younglings. Babes in the nurseries. Toddlers. Children just begun their schooling. Youth eager to become someone's Padawan. All dead at the hands of his Padawan.
His ... No. Please no.
Yes. Force forbid. His Padawan. Obi-Wan bent over, touched his forehead to the rug.
"Are you ill, Ben?"
"Please go, Beru. Please. I'll be fine. I just need ... rest. M-meditation."
"Are you sure?"
Through clenched teeth, he said, "Yes. Go." He pushed to his feet and stumbled to the refresher. As he splashed water on his face, he heard the door close, heard the landspeeder hum to life and begin to move.
He returned to the main room. The child was gone, but inside, something roiled and surged like a geyser preparing to erupt. Something he didn't want to see. His breath came in gulps. Roaring filled his ears.
The younglings. Is that why he'd mostly avoided Luke this past year? Why did Anakin do it? How? Could? He? How ...
The heated air of Mustafar seemed to swirl around him, sucking the air from his lungs. The wall, the carefully constructed inner wall began to melt in the heat. Obi-Wan shook his head and clenched his fists.
Anakin's hate-filled voice echoed through his mind. I hate you!
Obi-Wan stood rooted, face lifted to the ceiling. I loved you. He wiped at wet cheeks. But the younglings ...
He dropped to his knees, gasping. Loved Anakin like a brother. Should have ended it. Ended Anakin's pain. It hammered at him anew. Anakin's agony. Rage.
The wall buckled and collapsed in a rush of sparks and flames. The memory from that one moment -- that one awful moment -- crashed over him. Standing, looking down at the charred, pain-wracked remains of Anakin Skywalker.
Obi-Wan's own hatred licked at his soul. He shook with remembrance. That scorched, barely-breathing stump. I loved you. His own rage. That moment of white-hot anger. Turning away. Wanting -- Wanting! -- Anakin to die slowly, painfully, remembering every last face of every Jedi youngling ...
Why the younglings? Obi-Wan ground his fists against his thighs. Bodies scorched with lightsaber burns. They were innocent.
Dark tendrils slithered into Obi-Wan's soul, seeking purchase. He recognized their fiery touch, tried to inhale calm. Hatred leads to the Dark Side. Something inside whispered, You have good reason to hate.
No. Obi-Wan forced himself to look through the flames, to the Light beyond. No. His Padawan had shown him where that path leads.
The conflagration dissipated on a desert breeze.
In its place, sorrow clutched Obi-Wan like a vise. And squeezed. His shoulders shook as tears flowed unchecked. For how long, he didn't know. The wave of grief finally subsided. Obi-Wan shifted to sit crossed-legged and buried his face in his hands. The younglings. How could he find the strength to forgive Anakin so the hate didn't return?
He slumped, drained of the ability to feel, to think. Empty.
If he had held to his love, he would have ended it. Killed Anakin. His moment of hatred had served the Dark Side: Darth Vader had risen from the flames.
"How do I forgive myself?" Obi-Wan whispered.
"You start by acknowledging that you don't know all there is to know about the Force."
Obi-Wan jerked his head up and stared at the apparition sitting cross-legged in front of him. "M-master?"
A crooked smile claimed the blue-tinted mouth. A luminous Qui-Gon Jinn said, "That was many years ago, my friend. You've been a master long enough that you needn't address me that way any longer."
"A failed master."
"We don't know that. Your task isn't yet complete."
"How can you say that, Ma--, Qui-Gon? Anakin chose evil."
One eyebrow quirked. "And that was your fault?"
Of course it was his fault. Obi-Wan blinked. Wasn't it? He searched ghostly face of his old master, drinking in the sight of him, breathing in the peace that surrounded him. Obi-Wan hesitated. "Why are you here?"
"Do you want me to leave?"
"No!" Obi-Wan started to rise. He forced himself to relax. "I mean, I'd prefer you to stay ... if you want."
Qui-Gon smiled again. "I do want, Obi-Wan. I've wanted to reach you for some time."
"I've been trying to contact you. I've been following the steps Master Yoda outlined."
"Yes, you're very good at following steps. But that wall you had inside was bigger than you realized. It kept you safe from the memory of your hate, but it also kept you from reaching beyond yourself. So next time you see young Luke Skywalker, you need to thank him for helping to bring down that wall."
Obi-Wan nodded. "Forgive me, Master."
"There's nothing to forgive, Padawan. I'm proud of you. I've always been proud of you. And if you want it, I'm here to help you."
"Do I want it?" Obi-Wan blurted, tone incredulous.
And Obi-Wan smiled. Really smiled. For the first time in a very long time.
Original cover by Lyra Luminara. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.